What is Human Rights?

FILE PHOTO 5JUN89 - A Peking citizen stands passively in front of a convoy of tanks on the Avenue of..

Tank Man, Tiananmen Square

Here’s another misunderstood topic, everyone.

There is an idea behind human rights, and, to most Americans, the concept isn’t as clear as it could be. Americans assume that the Bill of Rights and principle of liberty essentially ensure most individual rights. But, that’s not always the case.

Read this if: You want to understand international human rights violations, how the United States could be lacking human rights, and approaches try to improve such conditions.

What rights, DUDE!?

We all know, in the United States, that the Bill of Rights offers protections, correct? We also know that the Declaration says that people are entitled to: life, liberty, and the right to own property (happiness), correct?

Well, those are rights of every human being. Yes, I know slavery was around when the document was made. Yes, women and children, and poor people didn’t count. During the establishment of the United States, those rights were extended to those who were involved in political life. And, to be political at that time, you had to be a white, land-owning male. Thus, in the beginning, those rights weren’t human rights, technically they were wealthy-white-male rights.

Well, these days there are conceptions of universal human rights, and documents like the Declaration were directly responsible for primitive formations of these ideas. Back in those colonial days, however, religion could prevent life, or liberty. The father of the household could prevent rights. Slavery was an institution. Women were property. Children were worked, sometimes to death. Capitalists could exploit workers. People could be executed for any reason of the day. Law was underdeveloped, and religion and aristocratic norms were … well, normal. Populations worried about disease, sanitation, lack of any support (i.e. police, firefighters, education, roads, development of any kind really). And in these conditions, people were exploiting one another in droves.

However, over the years, law was codified, and formalized. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches defined their roles, and a system developed. And, after all political power grabbing and exploitation, there were actual laws passed. Laws meant to make society better. Eventually slavery was abolished, worker protections were in place, the EPA was invented to protect the environment. National park systems protect the land. Women could vote. Children were protected. Police, firefighter, education, and human services systems were developed. Roads built. Sanitation increased, monetary systems evolved. Capitalists were regulated … to some extent. Overall, things developed. While not perfect, they developed.

Only after all that development could academics, thinkers, and organizations get together, and come up with ideas about improving the human condition. In general, these aims were conceived of as “human rights.” The idea is to identify what every human is endowed with simply by being human, identify all the ways humans are repressed, and undo such injustice.

United Nations

So the United Nations, in 1945, the year WWII ended, declared Universal Human Rights. In it (read it here) are 30 different articles that define what each, and every, person’s right is — simply because they are a human. Lots of countries adopted the declaration, but not everything is followed all the time. Just like everything done at the United Nations, it’s up to states to carry out the agreements, and that doesn’t always happen.

Regardless, the United Nations continues to make treaties, agreements, and forums aimed at increasing human rights, and establishing legal framework by which those who violate the declaration, and alleged international law, can be tried. Does this work? Not really, because the law only works if states all agree to do something about it — which gets violated all the time during wars and such. But, at least they try. … but other complications include: corruption at the UN, bribes, payoffs, and even peacekeepers indicted in human rights abuses themselves — so the UN has a credibility issue as well.

So what are some of these “rights,” you may ask? Oh, well, here’s a few: 1) All people can reason and can think; 2) people are granted life, liberty, and security; 3) nobody can be enslaved; 4) nobody can be tortured; 5) no one can face discrimination; 6) nobody can be arrested for no reason; 7) HERE’S SOMETHING INTERESTING: everyone is free to move to different countries, and move back; 8) people can seek asylum if they wish; 9) people can have families, and women can choose their partners; 10) everyone can express opinions … there are 20 more if you’re interested.


Now you ask yourself, how could anyone violate these? They’re pretty standard rights. Right? Wrong. They’re violated literally all the time — even in the US.

Slavery, though at the lowest point in human history, probably, is still a thing. In the US, it’s young children or runaway girls who are put into prostitution. In the Middle East, there is clearly an issue with freedom of religion. There are women’s rights issues literally all across the world — including the US. In the US, especially in the South, racial issues persist. Blacks are still segregated in slums, there are issues with gang exploitation, drug lords target minority communities, and employer-to-minority discrimination. Families all across the world, and the US, have heads of households (fathers, mostly) who prevent free opinions, or liberty. Parents coerce children to follow a particular path. Husbands force wives to live a particular way. Children are extremely vulnerable, and their opinions aren’t valued, they can be beaten. … there are lots of problems. I won’t even go into instances of organized rape camps, genocide, infanticide, or systematic purging at the international level.

Then, there are other human rights advocates who go further, and point out more. Some advocates, in the US especially, look at minority communities and see a lack of banks, grocery stores, and a lack of public services (transportation and such). The argument is that without these resources, it’s virtually impossible to get a job, be productive, or live a normal life. In some neighborhoods, the only food is McDonalds, and there’s not even anywhere to buy an apple! That leaves space for corporate exploitation.

No matter what issue you take up, these rights are violated on a daily basis. Not all humans are seen as equal. Not everybody listens to others. Not all people get the same treatment as others. … and there are thousands of ways to look at why.

Then there’s political issues, internationally speaking. Africa is off the charts for wars, child armies, female suppression, and political turmoil. Asia exploits workers to produce goods.Israel suppresses pro-Palestine sentiments. Palestine suppresses pro-Israel sentiments. Freedom of information is definitely lacking in dictatorships, autocracies, or closed societies. Protests are shut down (and can turn into wars, as in Syria).

Money holds sway over people from everywhere, and convinces them to violate their free will. The fact remains that people everywhere violate their ethics and morals for money.

… I’m sure you can come up with more.


Well, that was a downer.

True, it is. But the idea is that these problems won’t fix themselves, magically. Rather, it’s better to make declarations, rules, laws, and agreements and continue to hound countries to own up to them. Then, that could diffuse information, and create norms (or what’s “normal”) for each country. If it’s “normal” to treat people as equals, then the norm is equality. But that norm doesn’t exist; hence human rights at least attempts to change that.

So, does this norm-building work? Well, that’s the million dollar question. Ever since the end of WWII, people have been developing these ideas and diffusing information. NGOs all over the world exist now. Human rights organizations exist. The UN, though discredited at times, at least exists. Agreements have been made, and no major World War has occurred yet. I will say that if it does work, the effects of such policies won’t be seen for quite some time. There are too many political problems all over the world, and until those are resolved, indiscriminate and systematic human rights abuses will probably continue.

But, on the bright side, at least there’s an attempt to inform people … too bad most people don’t listen to anybody.



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